Justification: Trent versus the Reformation

Some time ago, I posted on the doctrine of justification according to the Roman church’s Council of Trent. I paraphrased and summarized the 33 anathemas there into what the Roman church affirmed about justification.

Today, I am posting a short paper written for my church history course. It compares the Trent-ian doctrine of justification with that of the Reformation heritage.

Here it is:

        The Reformers recovered the doctrine of justification from the letters of Paul, and staunchly proclaimed this doctrine over and against the prevailing notions which held sway in the Church. Rome countered, and forcibly, the teachings of Luther and others at the Council of Trent, which settled, with stone-hard papal authority, the absolute and official Roman doctrine of justification. Much could be said here. However, this paper has a limited scope and purpose – to examine the doctrine of justification as pronounced by the Council of Trent (1547) and to compare it to an understanding informed by Scripture, as interpreted by the Reformation heritage (though not by any particular Refomer). This paper will examine both positions by way of three categories or questions. First, what effects or works justification? Second, what is the instrument to appropriate justification? Third, what is the basis of justification? Now, these overlap and mutually inform each other, on both sides, and these categories cannot be easily cut cleanly into distinct groups. And, again, (much!) more could be said on both sides, but these three areas will, nevertheless, provide a helpful framework for examining justification.

What Effects Justification?

By the time of the Reformation, the church of Rome had moved significantly away from the Augustinian notion of sovereign grace in salvation. Finally, at Trent, the church finalized its sub-Augustinian doctrine. Trent’s doctrine of justification is a wholly synergistic doctrine, where man works, effectually, for his own justifying grace. The following canons from the Council of Trent illustrate (but do not exhaust) the synergistic nature of justification in this scheme.        

According to Trent a man’s will is weak, and needs grace. The Council pronounced in Canon II anathema on anyone who says “that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free-will without grace he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty.”[i] So, to state it affirmatively, Trent here states that grace enables man’s free-will to merit eternal life, though “with difficulty.”        

Similarly, Canon IV pronounces anathema upon anyone who denies that man’s free will “cooperates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification […] and does nothing whatever and is merely passive.”[ii] Again, to state it as an affirmation: “Free will cooperates with God’s grace in an active (and not passive) way.” One last example, from Canon IX, finds that Trent anathematizes anyone who would say “that it is not in any way necessary, that [a man] be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will”[iii] in order to receive justification.

On the other hand, the Reformation proclaimed the doctrine of justification “by grace alone” – that is, as a fully monergistic activity. God works in a sovereign way to bring his own people to himself, and to justify them. It views the human will as acted upon by God, and therefore able to act. Philippians 2:12-13 provides a perfect illustration of the biblical idea. Paul says here to the Philippian church: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[iv]

Here we see what some would call “free will” in the first part of this passage. Paul says “work out your own salvation”. Now, some have interpreted this in the fashion of Rome – taking it to mean that we somehow “help” or “do” something to gain our salvation. But the passage does not permit this interpretation because Paul gives the ground or basis for human working. He says “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work.” This means that any work we do must originate with God himself, as the ultimate worker for our salvation. The Reformation doctrine of justification recovered the fundamentally monergistic nature of salvation – we work because God works, not in addition to or cooperation with his working.

What is the Instrument of Justification?

            The instrument of justification relates closely to the worker of justification, both on the Roman and on the Reformation side. The Council of Trent, in its synergistic framework, sees justification as merited by the good works of the one justified. This understanding permeates the entirety of the Canons pronounced by Trent, seen in Canons 7, 9, 14, 18, 19, 20, 24, 26, 31, 32. A few examples will suffice. Canon IX, quoted above anathematizes anyone who would say that justification is by faith alone. Consider, perhaps most profoundly, Canon XXXII:

If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life, — if so be, however, that he depart in grace – and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.[v]

Again, stating this as an affirmation would be to say: “Good works are a merit, and not simply a gift of God.  Good works merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and attainment of that eternal life.” Canon XII likewise explicitly states that justification is more than merely “confidence in the divine mercy.”[vi]

Such statements stand profoundly against the lynch-pin Reformation doctrine of justification “by faith alone.” This understanding formed the backbone of the recovery of biblical doctrine. The scriptures teem with this understanding. Take two powerful examples: First, Paul in Galatians states that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16). Again, in Romans 3:23-24, Paul asserts that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Over and against the Roman Catholic doctrine, the Reformation recovered this clear biblical understanding, seeing that the scriptures testify to the amazing grace that is justification.  The nature of justification is evident in these passages. It is “not by works”, meaning that the person justified in no way merits (as Trent would say) such justification. Similarly, Paul asserts that the justified are made so “as a gift”. This type of language clearly and powerfully excludes the Trentian understanding of a synergistic and merited justification.

What is the Basis of Justification?

            The last category is the differences in the understanding of what forms the basis of justification. For Trent the basis of justification is formed by an inherent and infused righteousness, poured into the sinner by the Holy Spirit. Canon XI says:

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission or sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost (Rom. 5:5), and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God: let him be anathema.[vii]

Here, by excluding the “sole imputation of the justice [i.e. righteousness] of Christ”, Trent seeks to undermine the fundamental Reformational understanding of biblical Christian salvation. By way of affirmation, it is said that the Holy Ghost pours grace into men, and it is thereby inherent in them. This works itself out in perfect consistency with the entire framework of the doctrine of justification according to Trent.

            However, the scriptures describe as the basis of justification that Roman-anathematized doctrine of “the sole imputation of the righteousness of Christ”. The most important text in this regard is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here Paul states the doctrine of the exchange – that Christ was given our sin, and we were given his righteousness. It says that “in him we might become the righteousness of God.” “In him” here indicates an identification – God identifies us with Christ and his righteousness. This grounds justification.


            Clearly, these three important areas regarding the doctrine of justification demonstrate the profound difference between the Roman doctrine as finalized by the Council of Trent and that of the doctrine as seen in the Scriptures, which the Reformation heritage recovered. For Trent, justification is fundamentally a synergistic endeavor – that is God-plus-people. In these scheme men might truly merit their own justification. Justification, however, as seen in the scriptures, demonstrate an extremely different picture, one encapsulated by the phrase: “by grace alone, through faith alone, and on the basis of Christ’s work alone.” Romans 3:27 says that boasting is excluded by God’s work in justification. Perhaps, then, a fourth and final important question one might ask is, “Which doctrine excludes boasting?”

This answer, of course, is obvious.


[i] “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent: Of Justification” in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff. (New York: Harper and Brothers), 110.

[ii] Ibid., 111.

[iii] Ibid., 112.

[iv] All references are ESV.

[v] Ibid., 117-18.

[vi] Ibid., 113.

[vii] Ibid., 112-13.









About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
This entry was posted in Justification, Roman Catholic, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Justification: Trent versus the Reformation

  1. Ben says:

    Proving that one synergistic model is flawed does not prove that all synergistic models are flawed … and I think there is adequate NT evidence to suggest that monergistic models are not without their problems as well. It was through reading the scripture, and not through intellectual analysis, that I initially became frustrated with “monergism”. Although I think I would, perhaps like the Orthodox interviewee in your other post, say that Salvation is monergistic, but Sanctification is synergistic. But maybe you don’t disagree with that?

  2. dslavich says:

    It depends on what you mean by synergistic. Look at Galatians 3 — what does Paul combat?

    Sanctification by works.

    Now, there are, clearly, imperatives in the NT, but how does the human will interact with these?

    God regenerates believers, giving them a new heart, thereby enabling them to “work out their salvation.” However, the basis of this “working” is God prior and ultimate working — making all of salvation of monergistic grace.

  3. Ben says:

    I only glanced at Gal 3 to respond to your post, but he’s talking about circumcision, isn’t he? Though he says, “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” I think he is still referring to justification and not sanctification. Circumcision is not a moral act, but something that is done to make you a member of the covenant. You don’t engage in circumcision because you think it will make you more holy, you do it because you need it to be saved. Therefore, if Paul is indeed advocating monergism in this passage, I would say that it is of the Salvific variety.

  4. Lee says:

    I agree with Danny here about Galatians 3. I don’t understand how you can assert that Paul is still referring to justification after quoting 3:3, Ben. Yes, circumcision is sign of the covenant, etc., but it was definitely concerning sanctification (reaching maturity/perfection) that Paul was speaking.

  5. dslavich says:

    Ben, you should listen to Lee and to me. We’re both correct.

    Now that that’s settled…

  6. Ben says:

    Hahahahaha … cool, we can all be heretics together. 🙂

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